It’s long been known to magazine journalists that there’s an audience out there that’s hungry to see the grasping and vainglorious and undeservedly successful (“douchebags” or “asshats,” in Gawker parlance) put in the tumbrel and taken to their doom. It’s not necessarily a pleasant job, but someone’s got to do it. Young writers have always had the option of making their name by meting out character assassinations—I have been guilty of taking this path myself—but Gawker’s ad hominem attacks and piss-on-a-baby humor far outstrip even Spy magazine’s. It’s an inevitable consequence of living in today’s New York: Youthful anxiety and generational angst about having been completely cheated out of ownership of Manhattan, and only sporadically gaining it in Brooklyn and Queens, has fostered a bloodlust for the heads of the douchebags who stole the city. It’s that old story of haves and have-nots, rewritten once again.
Gawker is the finest mechanism to date for satisfying this craving. Two weeks ago, Gawker writer Josh Stein jumped on the 4-year-old son of satirist Neal Pollack, calling him a “horror” and “the worst” for providing his father with some cute quips about expensive cheese at a gourmet store; Pollack responded by sending an e-mail blast about his feelings to his friends, but Gawker got hold of the e-mail and relentlessly dug into him again and again. When Pollock first saw the post, “my heart sank to my knees,” he says. “Instinctively, and stupidly, I sent out that e-mail, which I should never have done, because it just gave them the satisfaction of knowing that they’d gotten to me. That’s all bullies want, really.”
Someone Pollack knows later sent him a link to a blog written by a woman who’d dated Stein, which he passed along to me: “It’s nice to know that my antagonist is an emotionally manipulative premature ejaculator with a Serge Gainsbourg tattoo on his back,” explains Pollack, who’d realized a truth of the bile culture—shame is a weapon.
“Only two of those things are true,” jokes Stein. “Look, if I was Neal Pollack, I would be mad too. But when you create a character out of your son, and you develop that character in your prose, that character is open to criticism. I’m actually looking forward to the moment when Neal Pollack is an old person and Elijah Pollack is writing stories about him in a nursing home.”
Journalists are both haves and have-nots. They’re at the feast, but know they don’t really belong—they’re fighting for table scraps, essentially—and it could all fall apart at any moment. Success is not solid. That’s part of the weird fascination with Gawker, part of why it still works, five years on—it’s about the anxiety and class rage of New York’s creative underclass. Gawker’s social policing and snipe-trading sideshow has been impossible to resist as a kind of moral drama about who deserves success and who doesn’t. It supplies a Manhattan version of social justice. In the past couple of years, Gawker has expanded its mission to include celebrity gossip, sacrificing some of its insider voice in the process, but on a most basic level, it remains a blog about being a writer in New York, with all the competition, envy, and self-hate that goes along with the insecurity of that position.
It’s not a secret that these are hard times for journalists. In fact, the rise of Gawker over the past half-decade has dovetailed with the general decline of newspaper and magazine publishing, which, like the rest of the publishing industry, has seen revenues stagnate as advertisers are increasingly drawn to the Web. This has made for wholesale changes within magazines, including our own, with Web departments, a few years ago considered a convenient place to dump unimpressive employees, now led by the favored (our own Website now counts over 40 employees). At the same time, the $200,000-a-year print-publishing job, once an attainable goal for those who had climbed near the top of the ladder in editorial departments, has all but disappeared.